By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
The pressure that comes with competing for the championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is immense for the drivers that make the cut into the postseason to be one of the few to have a shot at the title and sometimes that pressure can be too much to bear.
In the 2005 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, tempers flaring among the drivers, those in the playoffs and on the outside looking in, nearly overshadowed a stellar finish between Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart in the closing laps of the event on the flat 1.058-mile oval.
Back then, New Hampshire kicked off the postseason, with 10 drivers eligible for the title over the final 10 weeks. Stewart came into the race as the points leader and kept the momentum from the regular season going by winning the pole that weekend, with Jeff Gordon, who didn’t make the cut into the playoffs, joining him on the front row.
Stewart took off with the lead when the green flag dropped, but it didn’t take long for a driver eligible for the championship to run into trouble.
On lap 4, defending series champion Kurt Busch got spun off of the bumper of Scott Riggs, sending Busch’s Ford into the Turn 2 wall. Needless to say, Busch was not happy with Riggs and made his displeasure known by climbing up on top of Riggs pit box and having a discussion with his crew chief, Rodney Childers.
Busch’s crew would be able to get his car repaired and back in the race, but the damage had already been done as Busch finished the day 67 laps down in 35th place, leaving him dead last in the championship standings leaving the Magic Mile.
Back up front, it was still all Stewart as he would lead 143 of the first 180 laps of the race, but there would be more on-track squabbles to come as the race played out.
Kasey Kahne, who had missed the playoffs in his sophomore season, despite winning his first career race earlier in the year, had a run-in with Kyle Busch, also on the outside of the playoff field on lap 166 as Busch made contact with Kahne’s car, spinning him into a hard impact with the outside wall in Turn 2.
Kahne started to limp his car around to the garage, but when Busch came driving by under caution, Kahne pulled his car directly in front of Busch and stopped to express his feelings about the contact between the two.
“We just got taken out,” said Kahne. “There’s times when things happen and you end up crashing because of other cars, but right there, we just got taken out.”
“If people are going to run you over for no reason and think they’re going to get away with it, then you just go out there and ruin their day too. I think that’s the best way to do it.”
NASCAR wasn’t too happy with Kahne’s reaction on the track, as they would place him on probation for the remainder of the season, and also fined him $25,000 and docked him 25 points.
Kyle Busch would spin to bring out the caution just 10 laps later, bringing pit strategy into the mix, as Stewart and the majority of the leaders elected to hit pit road, but Ryan Newman and a handful of others stayed out on track to gain track position. Newman would inherit the lead, with Stewart restarting back in 13th place.
With Newman still in the lead on lap 192, more fireworks were getting ready to go off further back in the pack. Mike Bliss and Joe Nemechek would get together in Turn 2 to bring out the ninth caution of the day, but it was what happened under the caution that had everyone talking.
Fed up with getting pushed around by Robby Gordon, Michael Waltrip made contact with Gordon’s car on the backstretch, sending Gordon’s No. 7 car into the outside wall. Instead of getting out of his car and walking to the ambulance right away, Gordon backed his car down the track and the exited the car with helmet in hand, waiting for Waltrip to drive back around.
As the cars circled under caution, Gordon stepped out in the middle of oncoming traffic and hurled his helmet at the side of Waltrip’s passing car before being ushered into a waiting safety car by NASCAR officials.
After returning to the garage area, Gordon had some colorful language about Waltrip and the incident.
“Everybody thinks Michael is this good guy,” said Gordon. “He’s not the good guy like he acts he is. The caution was out and he wrecked me. He’s a piece of shit.”
Waltrip had a different outlook on things when asked about it by TNT broadcaster Benny Parsons a short time later.
“Well, Robby just drove down in the corner like I wasn’t even there and shoved me all the way up to the edge of the groove,” said Waltrip. “As we exited the turn, short of me just driving the Domino’s Pizza, NAPA Auto Parts, Best Western Chevy into the wall, I had to finally stand my ground. When I did, it hooked him and wrecked him. He drives like he’s in the desert or something.”
“I ain’t no fool. I’ve never had that happen to me before, so I just decided I would mash the gas and duck and hope for the best,” he added about the helmet toss. “I respect these cats I race against and he just acted like I wasn’t even there and I just stood my ground.”
“It’s half my fault. I agreed to come out here and race with him.”
Both Gordon and Waltrip would get penalized by NASCAR as Waltrip was fined $10,000 and docked 25 points, while Gordon also lost 25 points and had two monetary fines equaling $35,000 ($25,000 for his on track antics and $10,000 for cursing on television). In a penalty similar to Kahne’s earlier in the day, Gordon was also placed on probation for the remainder of the season.
Meanwhile, Newman continued to lead until green flag pit stops on lap 235, giving up the race lead to Stewart as he made his way down pit road for service. Stewart would lead until there were 43 laps to go in the race for his final pit stop. The lead would then cycle between Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon and others over the next 24 laps before the caution came out with 22 laps remaining to hand the lead to back to Newman, with Stewart in second.
Newman got the jump on the final restart, but Stewart powered his way into the lead with eight laps to go. Stewart may have gotten the better of Newman the first time, but the second go around, Newman wouldn’t be denied.
Staying right on Stewart’s rear bumper, Newman made his move with two laps to go, pulling alongside Stewart in Turn 1 and finally clearing him off of Turn 4 to take the white flag. Once he was out front, that was all it took as Newman held off Stewart over the final mile to take the win, with Stewart just 0.292 seconds back.
Not only was the win the first of the season for Newman, it also broke a year-long winless streak in the No. 12 car for Team Penske.
Following Newman and Stewart to the line was Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to round out the top-five.
“A long time coming, no doubt,” said Newman. “We erased it today and raced to win. Tony raced me clean. I felt like I raced him clean. Just a good day for us.”
“It feels awesome to get in victory lane and hopefully we’re getting close to our peak.”
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